How To Create A Happy Home, According To Neuroscience
"Designing for joy is a powerful thing,” architect Helena van Vliet declared to a conference room of environmentalists, city planners, and entrepreneurs at the Biophilic Leadership Summit last month. "Beauty is the first thing that’s budgeted out of design projects, but it’s something that we need to be well."
Beautiful spaces that set the stage for joyful experience are the cornerstone of the decades-old but increasingly trendy field of biophilic design. It takes cues from the sights, sounds, and smells of nature to create built environments that put humans at ease in the same way a walk in the woods might. Thanks in part to large companies like Google, Etsy, and Amazon, which are implementing biophilic principles into their offices to drive productivity and decrease workplace stress, nature-based design has gained mainstream appeal in the past few years.
Throughout the Summit, experts shared ways to reap the restorative benefits of nature beyond just buying a few houseplants for your home (though that's a good start). An architect from Google explained how certain materials, textures, artwork, and soundscapes can work together to increase our cognitive function, the host town of Serenbe—a wellness mecca 30 minutes outside Atlanta—offered insight into how a residential community could be built in a way that honors the nature that surrounds, and a representative from The Nature Conservancy showed how greener cities could buffer the effects of climate change, saying, "We want nature to be like traffic lights and stop signs—a crucial component of what any great city looks like."
Van Vliet's approach to biophilic design struck a particular chord due to its spiritual undertones. It built off the idea that, like meditation and breathwork, a well-designed space can bring us back into our bodies and root us in the present moment.
How spaces can speak to our 30 (yes, 30) senses.
"I think of it in terms of mindfulness," van Vliet explained when I caught up with her after the Summit. "It's not really about what a place looks like. It's how it makes us feel."
With each design, she considers the approximately 30 senses that some scientists now say we have. Beyond the sights, sounds, etc., that we consciously register, this list includes more unconscious senses like echolocation (how we perceive where we are in space related to the sounds around us) and thermoception (how we perceive the temperature of objects). While it may seem impossible to design for such nuances, van Vliet says that pulling in patterns from the environment helps. After all, nature is a place that humans have, consciously and unconsciously, felt at home in for eons.
"It all goes back to evolution. We as a species were designed to be in the natural environment, so our bodies are best suited for that. In nature, we feel stimulated and relaxed at the same time."
Van Vliet points to hospitals as an example of a space that would benefit from eco-inspired sensory elements. If you just hung more art on the walls, a hospital would certainly look better. But if you didn't address the sounds of beepers and sick patients or smell of harsh chemical cleaners, you would still have a stress-inducing environment on your hands. Layering the space with music recordings, essential oils, and views of nature would likely improve people's perception of it.
This year, research by the World Green Building Council's supported biophilic design's ability to improve outlook, finding that families who visited the Akron Children’s Hospital were 67 percent more satisfied with their experience in the space after it underwent a green sweep. Van Vliet and others at the conference agreed that data collection like this is crucial. She also thinks that more collaboration between architects and scientists—particularly neuroscientists—is essential for spaces that promote well-being.
"Architects and neuroscientists tend to speak a different language, but they're trying really hard to connect with each other," she says, pointing to the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture as a great example. "It turns out a lot of cognition is nonconscious. It's essential for architects to know about archetypal patterns, why they mattered in evolution, and how the brain recognizes them."
A biophilic designer's ideas for a subconsciously pleasing home.
Here are some of van Vliet's top tips for anyone looking to design a home that pulls in nature to promote ease and joy in the mind and body:
1. Work in some water.
"The sound of water can mask street sounds and car noises quite nicely, plus it moisturizes the air," she says. "Even a small fountain can work miracles when it reverberates off walls. There's something about water that grounds us in our space.
2. Go for a smell-good space.
Whether it's essential oils, clean-burning candles, or an aromatic herb garden of rosemary and lavender, try to weave a smell-good element into every room.
3. Seek refuge.
In biophilic design, refuge spaces—ones that make us feel safe and protected—are key. Try to create more places that feel private and introspective, like a reading nook behind a soft curtain or an eating space obscured by some plants.
4. Play with sunlight.
Van Vliet has a quick tip for anyone who has a lot of window space to play with: "If you have a lot of glass and glare, you can introduce patterns to your window in the form of lace curtains at the top. That way, when the sun shines in, you will have beautiful light patterns that travel across your room."
5. Designate tech-free spaces.
Reserving tech-free spaces at home can help you get over what van Vliet calls "place blindness." "The more we focus on screens, the more detached we become from our own senses," she says. If making the bedroom a tech-free zone feels too difficult, start with a smaller area like a kitchen table or reading chair.
Looking for some design inspo? Check out some of the beautiful spaces mbg has featured on our holistic home tour series. This one is a great example of how stunning lace can look over sunlight, and this one has refuge spaces galore.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.